China has been a challenge for India but Indian leaders from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi have – for different reasons – felt they can overcome the hostility

by Seema Sirohi

Hints of a breakthrough in the tense India-China border standoff are on the horizon and efforts are underway to disengage before the onset of a long, hard winter.

If winter comes and details of the exact disengagement process haven’t been worked out, spring will be far behind, if it comes at all. Endurance will be tested and supply lines will be stretched as leaders hunt for answers, especially on the Indian side.

The tragedy is that we have been here before. Multiple times. But Indian leaders have often lulled themselves into believing something that doesn’t exist-- a friendly China. They conjured up summits that repeatedly crashed into the great wall of hostility save for a few years when relatively peaceful co-existence was possible mainly because China was busy strengthening its economic muscle and getting in position.

Sure, India and China will exist together because they have to but it won’t be a trusting, equitable or even a tolerable existence. China thinks and acts a certain way. The Chinese leadership tends to “decree” rather than dialogue. It wants everything on its terms. Recent scholarship has shown that this strategy is not specific to President Xi Jinping, only more pronounced.

India will not accept the kind of relationship China envisions. Diplomats can negotiate agreements in all sincerity to buy time but as recent events showed, China didn’t care very much about those carefully crafted agreements. And the latest shredding of agreements is not an isolated phenomenon.

In April 2005, China backtracked from a key article of a forward-looking agreement on “political parameters and guiding principles to settle the boundary question” which dealt with safeguarding the interests of “settled populations” in border areas to the utter shock of the Indian side. The backtracking happened within months of signing it.

Last week China said it doesn’t recognise Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Actually, China never has. The spokesman went on to claim that India’s infrastructure development in those areas was the “root cause” of recent tensions. No matter that China has upgraded its infrastructure in Tibet coming right up to the border.

For China, the story is always one-sided and it takes only one to tango. As Tanvi Madan has shown in her excellent book “Fateful Triangle,” China has been a challenge for India since it came to be a modern nation barring short intervals of strategic tolerance. But Indian leaders from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi have -- for different reasons -- felt they can overcome the hostility either with accommodation or sheer force of personality.

Published earlier this year, Madan’s book is about how China shaped Indo-US relations during the Cold War, bringing them close at times because the Americans were worried about India “falling” to Chinese communism but driving them apart when the US made an opening to China to counter the Soviets. The India-US-China triangle endures today with painfully similar arguments and counter-arguments on all sides.

And China’s state-supported commentators have never shied from verbal abuse when they see India and the US coming closer. In 1966, when Indira Gandhi publicly said India was committed to battling the communist Chinese threat, she was called “a sari-clad Amazon” and a “storm-trooper” of the US. Today, one just has to refer to Chinese Twitter handles to find the same flavour.

“Fateful Triangle” can be an intense déjà vu trip. It’s a must-read, given the current situation. Deeply researched via archives and unpublished primary sources, the book delves into diplomatic history literally memo by memo, year by year. China was and remains the big elephant in the room shaping calculations and compulsions for India and the US.

In India, realists were pitched against idealists on how to deal with China right off the bat and the Americans debated and worried about -- more intensely than one might expect -- the fate of democratic India against a communist China. After the invasion of Tibet in 1950, Sardar Patel argued China represented both an internal and external threat and nothing India did such as recognizing the communist regime or trying to facilitate China’s entry into the United Nations would convince China of its good intentions, Madan writes.

Nehru, much like Modi in his first term, felt China would be expansionist but did not really believe for a while that India was at risk. He thought it was best to reach “some kind of understanding” with China. Nehru always gave Beijing benefit of the doubt, which in turn led to misunderstandings with the US.

Nehru in his heart believed China would do nation-building just as he was doing because that would be the logical first task for any newly independent country. He didn’t factor in a different Chinese ideology.

Nehru constantly urged the Americans for more understanding of China and even diplomatic recognition. The US side took his views seriously and regularly consulted him despite frequent disagreements. You can find echoes of Nehruvian thinking today -- Modi started off looking at China as a development partner and investment source but probably not anymore.

By the mid-1950s, Nehru had begun to realise that China was a different kind of neighbour and not a fellow traveller. He was shocked that China had been busy drawing maps showing vast stretches of Indian territory as its own, which incidentally were faithfully duplicated by the Soviets.

By 1957, much to Nehru’s chagrin and despite Premier Zhou Enlai's indications to recognize the McMahon Line, China had built a road from Tibet to Xinjiang through Aksai Chin, which India considered its territory. By early 1959 Zhou had written to Nehru to say China neither accepted the McMahon Line nor withdrew its claim to Aksai Chin. Zhou complained about Indian maps.

Nehru wrote back laying out India’s claims and asked for a return to status quo ante, suggesting both countries give up certain claims. Meanwhile, Tibet was in turmoil and soon the Dalai Lama had taken shelter in India. Then as now, Nehru felt he could have it all keep on China’s good side, help the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans and keep India’s borders safe.

All the tricks China is playing today in India’s neighbourhood -- using Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and of course, Pakistan were used in the 50s in almost the same manner. And those countries reacted in much the same way they are doing today by using both India and China. Then as now, the Americans tried to help India’s neighbourhood from completely falling under China’s sway.

As Madan shows, over the years there have been many flashes of clarity of mind on the Indian side vis-à-vis China. It’s safe to say that no Indian leader since Nehru in his initial years has harboured any real delusions about China or Pakistan for that matter. The delusions have existed largely on the American side.

But all eyes are wide open now. Again. The question is whether India will take the necessary long-term measures to face the China challenge and whether the US interest will sustain into the future. Indian leaders shouldn’t tell themselves a story, which justifies or rationalises their default position: tomorrow is another day and military preparedness can wait because elections have to be won.

Madan had this to say when asked to compare the “then and now”: “The 1950s and 1960s tell us that shared concerns about China as a challenge can fuel a close US-India partnership. But for that to be sustainable they have to agree on the urgency and nature of the challenge and the approach to tackle it.”

Currently it would appear that they do agree on the challenge part but perhaps not entirely on the approach.